Snakes in a church may be scary to some people—though sacred to others—but they don't frighten some publishers.
Books about the sliver of Pentecostal Christians that engage in “taking up” poisonous snakes have been a constant with some university presses and commercial houses, for almost thirty years. And two new entries update the trend: In the House of the Serpent Handler: A Story of Faith and Fleeting Fame in the Age of Social Media by Julia Duin (University of Tennessee Press, Dec. 2017) and Test of Faith: Signs, Serpents, Salvation by Lauren Pond (Duke University Press, Jan.).
Duin, a religion reporter, spent several years traipsing around Appalachia, home to the majority of these independent congregations. She focused mainly on young male preachers, whose presence on social media brought more attention to the sect. Her book details their faith, which is fraught with arrests (transporting poisonous snakes is illegal in all states but West Virginia), addiction, adultery and, eventually, painful death by snakebite. Pond, an award-winning photographer, gained intimate access to some of the same preachers.
Thomas Wells, acquisitions editor at University of Tennessee Press, said Duin’s book is the fourth snake-handling title for the house. The book, he said, fits the publisher's mandate to publish books about religious history and about the American South where snake handling churches date to the early 1900s.
"Most of what we publish can trace its roots back to Southern Appalachia or Tennessee,” he said. “So given the connection to Andrew Hamblin (a snake-handling preacher featured in Duin’s book), who was about an hour up the road from our offices, the story caught our attention."
One or two academic titles about snake handling churches appeared in the 1960s. Then the phenomenon hit more literary circles when the quarterly journal Foxfire produced an entire issue on the sect and its culture in 1982. A few sensational and scholarly titles followed, most from small or academic presses.
"I think a lot of the academics and the folklorists have treated this subject in a sort of ethnographic sense. They write from a distance — look over here,’” Wells said.
But in 1994, Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia (Addison-Wesley) broke out of the academic ghetto and made the commercial spotlight. It was a finalist for the 1995 National Book Award and Covington was widely interviewed about his time embedded in these churches, including his own handling of poisonous snakes.
Wells touted Duin’s book as a return to this embedded reporter approach: "A lot of the snake handling books written now, including Duin’s, are as close as you can get to being an insider without being a member of the faith."
Pond’s book is also an insider’s perspective, but its hissing subject is unusual for Duke. The book is the eighth entry in a series DUP does with Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies.
Duke University Press publicity and advertising manager Laura Sell, said the press has a commitment to publish the winners of the CDS's award for a first book in photography. Pond captured the prize in 2016.